In language grounded in Islam, President Saddam Hussein's government today urged Arabs to rise up against pro-U.S. governments, told Iraqis they have a moral duty to defend their country and declared itself ready to unleash suicide attacks against U.S. and British soldiers.
The most strident calls came from Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who hurled invective at Arab leaders for hosting the U.S. forces that invaded Iraq 13 days ago. He promised that Iraq would unleash suicide attacks "in the next few days" and dismissed Arab efforts to deliver food and medicine, saying Iraq needs fellow Arabs to topple their governments instead.
"What is required of you is to struggle to increase the level of opposition to the governments that are corrupt and cooperate with the aggression and aggressors who opened their countries, their land, airspace and waterways in the service of the enemy," Ramadan said at a news conference that was unusually blunt even by the rough-spoken standards of Iraqi officials.
As in past days, Ramadan and others maintained a triumphal tone even as U.S. forces approached to within 50 miles of the capital on the heels of a withering air assault on a military defense ring and bombing on the city itself that has devastated presidential palaces, intelligence headquarters and telephone exchanges. Iraqi government officials have made clear that each day the government survives -- and that the war is prolonged -- counts as a tactical victory, part of their declared plan to make the U.S.-led war so costly that international intervention finally halts it.
"Our strategy is based on a long war, and I believe that we have succeeded in foiling their strategy at least so far," Ramadan said. "We have not entered a real battle with them yet."
As part of that strategy, the government has counted on public opinion, particularly in an Arab world seething over exhaustive coverage of civilian casualties, and a mobilization of traditional supporters under the banner of Islam.
In a speech read by Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, Hussein urged Iraqis to fight a jihad against U.S. and British forces. Relying almost exclusively on religious imagery, Hussein extolled the virtues of martyrdom and cast the war as one between Islam and its enemies.
"Jihad is a duty in confronting them. He who dies in this quest God bestows on him light in eternal paradise and in his blessing," Sahhaf said on Hussein's behalf in a brief speech read on Iraqi television, still on the air despite repeated attacks on transmission facilities.
"Fight them everywhere the way you are fighting them today and don't give them a chance to catch their breath until they declare it and withdraw from the lands of the Muslims, defeated and cursed in this life and the afterlife," Sahhaf said.
The absence of Hussein was sure to give new currency to reports, heard more often outside Iraq than inside the country, that the Iraqi leader may have been harmed or killed in an airstrike in Baghdad carried out on the war's first day.
Since then, Hussein has delivered two televised addresses -- the last one Saturday night -- and television has broadcast repeated footage of him attending meetings with senior advisers and his two sons, Uday and Qusay. Iraqi officials have scoffed at reports of his demise and his visage continues to cast a long shadow over Baghdad.
But in a sign that the government is sensitive to rumors about Hussein and his family, television broadcast an unusual denial of reports that some members of his family had fled the country. At the news conference, Ramadan responded to a suggestion by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal that Hussein step down with an epithet. "Go to hell!" he said.
"I tell you, you are too much of a nothing to utter a word on Saddam Hussein," Ramadan said.
For another night, U.S. bombing persisted in the heart of the capital after a methodical dismantling of telephone exchanges and transmission towers that cut lines within Baghdad and to other Iraqi cities. By Iraqi estimates, casualties have continued to mount under the around-the-clock barrage. Sahhaf said today 56 civilians were killed in Iraq over the past day, including 24 in Baghdad.
In one of the worst incidents, Iraqi officials said 33 people were killed in a U.S. attack in the southern city of Hilla, 55 miles south of Baghdad, and photographers escorted to the city by authorities reported counting at least 11 bodies, most of them children. The U.S. Central Command said it was investigating.
The U.S. assault also kept up a furious pace on the city's outskirts, where the elite Republican Guard units are stationed. But Gen. Sultan Ahmad, Iraq's defense minister, discounted the bombing's impact, dismissing U.S. estimates that the assault has cut some divisions' effectiveness in half. In a typically upbeat assessment, he boasted that U.S. and British forces had failed to capture any Iraqi town "because they never found anyone to cooperate with them" and promised fiercer fighting was ahead.